Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Jim Young)

Bernie Sanders issues a stern warning: Europe's populist revolt could happen here

The Leave campaign showed what's possible when a democratic system stops functioning democratically


Sean Illing
June 30, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

The populist revolt in Britain and much of Western Europe isn't reducible to a single variable, but it's partly a reaction against a globalized economy that has failed the masses. It's a frenzied, myopic reaction to be sure, but the underlying grievances are real. Mark Blyth, a political economist at Brown University, summed up the Brexit fiasco about as well as anyone could in a recent interview with AthensLive:

“This is Trumpism. Everybody's got a version of it. Here's what I mean by Trumpism. For the past 25 years, particularly the center-left has told the bottom 60% of the income distribution in their countries the following story: Globalization's good for you...We're going to sign these trade agreements. Don't worry there will be compensation...And by the way we don't really care because we're all going to move to the middle because that's where the voters are...And you make that move and you basically take the bottom 30% of the income distribution and you say, we don't care what happens to you. You're now something to be policed...It's a very patronizing relationship...This revolt is not just against Brexit. It's not about the EU. It's about the elites. It's about the 1%. It's about the fact that your parties that were meant to serve your interests have sold you down the river.”

The nativism animating the Trump movement in this country isn't new. But fascists flourish in troubled times, when conditions have deteriorated such that people no longer feel invested in the system. Like the voters in England who opted to leave the European Union without understanding what that meant, voters here are throwing their support behind Trump without any regard for the consequences. This is what you expect to happen when governing authority dissolves and people reject a process that doesn't serve them.

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In a New York Times op-ed this week, Bernie Sanders echoed Blyth's warning in characteristically blunt terms:

“And it's not just the British who are suffering. That increasingly globalized economy, established and maintained by the world's economic elite, is failing people everywhere. Incredibly, the wealthiest 62 people on this planet own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world's population – around 3.6 billion people. The top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the whole bottom 99 percent. The very, very rich enjoy unimaginable luxury while billions of people endure abject poverty, unemployment, and inadequate health care, education, housing and drinking water. Could this rejection of the current form of the global economy happen in the United States? You bet it could.”

This is essentially Sanders' stump speech, and the Brexit disaster makes it all the more urgent. The Leave campaign showed what's possible when a democratic system ceases to function democratically. If the Trump and Sanders campaigns have anything in common, it's that they're driven by a visceral anti-establishment sentiment. Wages are stagnant, costs are rising, and the Middle Class is disappearing. People know they're being sold a bill of goods, and both parties are complicit. The question is, which party or candidate will channel this outrage into meaningful reform. If we go the way of Trump, chaos awaits. If Democrats fail to recognize the gravity of the moment, chaos is delayed but inevitable.

Hence Sanders makes his final appeal to the Democratic Party:

“The notion that Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States. Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class. In this pivotal moment, the Democratic Party and a new Democratic president need to make clear that we stand with those who are struggling and who have been left behind.”

The message to fellow Democrats is clear: Wake up! Part of the reason Sanders is remaining in the race is he wants to apply as much leverage as possible. He won't be the nominee, but the staggering success of his campaign proves how hungry people are for change - real change. We're in an increasingly unstable environment. The system has to respond or risk collapsing under the weight of popular resentment. Another four or eight years of do-nothing centrism won't work.

Driving this point home is the singular goal of the Sanders campaign right now.


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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Bernie Sanders Brexit Democratic Party Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016




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